I mentioned yesterday that I’ll be speaking this afternoon, (6pm Eastern / 5 pm Central), on Catholic Answers Live with Patrick Coffin, on the subject of where the Bible comes from. In light of that, I want to talk about two important related issues: (1) where Christian “Statements of Belief” (SoBs) go wrong in regards to faith and the Bible; and (2) whether the canon of Scripture is even an important issue in the first place. I’ll look at the first of these today, and hold off on the second until next time.
I. The General Problem: Toothlessness
So what’s an SoB, anyway? A “Statement of Belief,” sometimes also called a “Statement of Faith,” is a declaration of a particular group’s beliefs. These are particularly popular in young, contemporary denominations and “parachurch organizations” (meaning those Protestant groups that aren’t churches, but which sometimes act sort of like denominations).
Traditionally, the Church has proclaimed the orthodox Christian faith with Creeds (from the Latin Credo, “I believe…”), and SoBs are a sort of “Creed lite.” Why lite? Because they’re toothless, and for a few important reasons. First, they are ambiguous as to whether they’re descriptive (here’s what we all happen to believe) or prescriptive (here’s what you ought to believe). The Southern Baptist Convention describes their “Basic Beliefs” as simply “generally held convictions.” If these are just a collection of popular opinions, who cares? The crowd’s been wrong before (Matthew 27:17-21; Mt. 16:13-14).
Second, SoBs lack any clear authority: why should we listen to, and obey, some random Protestant parachurch organization? That’s not a slam against the good organizations out there doing good work and spreading the Gospel. But if they have no special authority — they’re not the Church Christ founded, they don’t even pretend to be infallible, they contradict one another and have not a great doctrinal track record, historically-speaking — why should I ensure that my Christian beliefs match theirs?
Third, and related to these first two points, they’re toothless because they lack any sort of enforcement. If you read the SoB as saying “you must believe this, or else,” you’d be right in asking “… or else what?” With the Creeds, that answer is clear enough: the Creeds present the faith of the Church, and if you reject it, you’re a heretic or schismatic, and your salvation is imperiled. That’s the explicit teaching of the Athanasian Creed, which begins:
Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith. Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled; without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the catholic faith is this: …
That’s a stark contrast from “generally held convictions.” So, as a believer, you can’t just ignore or contradict the Creeds. But what about SoBs? What if you disagree with, say, Living Church of God’s (obviously wrong) claim that northwestern Europeans are descended from the ten lost tribes of Israel? Does anyone – including anyone with the Living Church of God – actually think that this denial means that you go to hell?
So already, we see the first problem with SoBs: they are similitudes, cheap imitations, of the Church’s Creeds, but without the authority or the orthodoxy. In this way, Christian SoBs are diametrically opposed to the Creeds in a very particular way. The Creeds were, and are, a source of Christian unity. It’s true that they reveal who’s outside the bounds of orthodox Christianity (schismatics and heretics). But in doing so, they also declare what all Christians believe (and must believe) about the truth: this catechizes the doubtful, and unites the orthodox. But SoBs don’t do that. They merely declare the “general views” of some self-segregating group of Christian believers. In other words, these statements tend to be a needless source of Christian division, not Christian unity.
But there’s another problem, frequently (but not universally) found in specific statements of faith:
II. The Specific Problem: Replacing God with Scripture
The second problem is that they typically try to start from the (ahistorical) 66-book Protestant canon, and move from there to belief in God. This starting point is reflected in many of the contemporary “Statements of Belief” (SoBs) that have supplanted the traditional Creeds. Take, for example, Hillsong, the group that counts celebrities like Justin Beiber amongst its members. Hillsong’s SoB begins, “We believe that the Bible is God’s Word. It is accurate, authoritative and applicable to our everyday lives.” International House of Prayer’s begins a bit more specifically: “We believe that only the sixty-six books of the Bible are the inspired and, therefore, inerrant Word of God. The Bible is the final authority for all we believe and how we are to live.” And Campus Crusade for Christ likewise begins their statement of faith by claiming:
The sole basis of our beliefs is the Bible, God’s infallible written Word, the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments. We believe that it was uniquely, verbally and fully inspired by the Holy Spirit and that it was written without error (inerrant) in the original manuscripts. It is the supreme and final authority in all matters on which it speaks.
You’ll notice that each of them begins without God. These three, and countless others like them, are remarkably similar in that they start with the Bible, and only after establishing that do they move on to declaring belief in the existence of God and in His Triune nature. That’s not a universal rule (there are some exceptions, even amongst contemporary SoBs), but it’s also not a coincidence or a thoughtless error. Rather, it reflects their theology. According to their view of Scripture, it’s only on the authority of Scripture that we can know things like the doctrine of the Trinity.
This is a striking contrast with the true Creeds, which begin with God, the true foundation of orthodox, Catholic Christianity. That’s what we find in the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed (after the preamble quoted above), the Chalcedonian Creed, as well as modern Creeds like the Credo of the People of God, etc. And this, too, is not a coincidence. Scripture has no basis or authority unless you believe in the God who reveals Himself through it. Our faith is not ultimately in the Bible, but in the God who reveals Himself through (amongst other ways) the Bible.
It’s a real problem that modern Protestantism gets this wrong, and this isn’t an isolated example. I’ve mentioned before that many Protestants today claim that the Bible is the fullness of revelation. Ironically, the Bible denies this, saying that Jesus is the fullness of revelation (Hebrews 1:1-3a; Colossians 1:15; John 14:9). No less problematic is IHOP’s claim that “only the sixty-six books of the Bible” are the “Word of God.” That’s heretically false. Jesus is the capital-W Word of God, as John 1:1-5 tells us. Although the Scriptures are the word of God in a secondary sense, He is the primary referent, because He’s the Word spoken by the Father for all eternity. He would be the Word even if Scripture had never been written, even if Creation had never existed.
Replacing God as the object of faith with a created thing (even a Divinely-created thing, like the Bible!) is the heart of idolatry. It can creep in subtly, but it’s a surefire way to shipwreck orthodoxy. Whether they intend to do that or not, these SoBs give every appearance of having done just that. The foundation of true Christianity is a God who reveals Himself in the Person of Jesus Christ. That revelation is contained, in part, by Sacred Scripture, but the Bible doesn’t even pretend to capture the fullness of His revelation (John 21:25; Jn. 20:30-31; 2 Thessalonians 2:15), since the fullness of revelation is a living Person. Believing that the foundation of Christianity is a book — even an inspired book — is a tremendous loss.
Of course, this doesn’t even get to the fact fact that starting from a 66-book Protestant canon makes no sense, historically. That particular canon of Scripture was never used by the early Christians. So if your starting assumption in interpreting Christianity is to assume that the early Christians got the contents of the Christian holy book wrong, you’re off to a bad start. Of course, if you want more on this, you should tune in to EWTN Catholic Radio later today.